I had an early morning ferry from Algeciras across to a port in Morocco called Tangier Med, about an hour from Tangier itself. I’d hoped for some good photos leaving Spain past Gibraltar and approaching Morocco. Instead I spent most of the ferry trip in a hallway queued up for Moroccan passport control. But I’m getting ahead of myself. It was almost dark still when I left the hotel. The ground was wet from overnight rain. Men were setting up fruit stalls in the square. Men waited inside the ferry terminal. Upstairs in the waiting area, a few other women waited, but none alone and most with headscarves. I was confused why nearly everyone didn’t have any luggage to speak of. I began to get a bit nervous about going to Morocco on my own. The first Muslim, Arabic speaking country I’ve been too and not really know what I was doing. No trains booked, only the accommodation in Marrakech, a full day’s travel away. I was feeling a little better by the time there was movement for the ferry, about half an hour after it was due to depart, but I was still a little unsure.
When I got a view from the ferry there wasn’t great visibility anyway, but the biggest surprise for me was that the two coasts were clearly visible to each other. It reminded me of the conversation I’d had with Kierstan on our way back to Lanjarón from snowboarding. She’d seen an African fellow in a documentary saying how he wanted to go back to his home country because the working conditions as an illegal immigrant in Spain were so terrible. But he didn’t have enough money or any legal way of going back. I’ve been getting more convinced in recent times that borders should be open to all except wanted criminals. Stories like this and seeing how close Spain and Morocco are to each other convinces me more. Why should I be able to come and go as I please for the fancy of it, just because I am lucky enough to have money and come from a rich country, when others have much more need to move around?
I don’t think that I’m a tourist paying my way is the whole explanation. An American woman I was talking with wants to come to Australia to earn money in the mines, another to work in her field in Dubai because the pay rates are so high. How is that any different to a person in Morocco yearning for better pay in Spain? A recent study in the UK found immigrants contributed something like ten times more to the economy than they took, and a study out of the USA by mathematicians showed that open borders would be the quickest way to spread wealth around the world. In my mind, borders keep wages low in certain countries only for the benefit of corporate exploitation. They are not the last bastion of the state, but of the corporation. Liveable minimum wages, workers’ rights and as much freedom of movement for all people as there is for corporations might lift costs, but would also make your job more secure. Probably doing it all in one go would wreak havoc, but the gradual expansion of the EU is one way. Hmm, where were we? Arriving in Morocco…
Off the ferry and on to a waiting courtesy bus to the shiny new ferry terminal for customs and the little old train connection to Tangier. The only woman on the courtesy bus. Perhaps the only woman on the train connection. But waiting for the train I saw I was lucky to get through customs ahead of all the people without luggage. Because wow, did they have some luggage, it’d just been in their buses on the lower decks. It was a ferry after all. The only thing was, they had so much luggage I couldn’t see how there was room on the buses for the people.
The train carved through softly jumbled green hills, over villages of blue, white or pale yellow houses with flat rooves to the station in Tangier. I’d thought I might wander around in the hour and a half wait I had for the next train, but the station was cut off by wide roads and wasteland. Already I didn’t know what language to say hello in. Arabic is the official language, but the spoken Moroccan version is different. I never did learn to remember the proper way to say hello in Moroccan, and I wasn’t sure of the religious overtones of ‘salaam’. French is the second language, but if I said bonjour did that have colonial overtones and imply I speak French? Was it particularly weird to then ask in French if they spoke English? And then English is apparently becoming more widespread, I certainly ended up finding more people willing to speak it in Morocco than in Spain. I think I mostly ended up replying with whatever I was greeted with and then asked in English if they spoke it. It seemed to work.
My next train was to Casablanca, with a change there for Marrakech. I’d hoped to be on an earlier train to have a few hours in Casa, but all the waiting and delays meant it wasn’t to be. From the first train there were views of green fields, perhaps growing vegetables for export. Men shepherding sheep, often in a traditional pointy hooded cloak over their jeans. Donkeys pulling carts or eating beside the tracks. I didn’t recognise boundary markings. Roads looked to have grown where people decided to go, though I saw few vehicles. There were no fences between fields, houses or the railway tracks. When the train went faster it sounded its horn more frequently. In a few places prickly pear hedges might have been night time enclosures for livestock, or might have had a completely different purpose. Gum trees caught me by surprise again. In some places I couldn’t tell if houses were being built, finished, or never going to be finished. The signs I’m used to, of scaffolding, fences, and temporary plastic simply weren’t used. Where there was plenty of plastic was in the rubbish alongside the tracks. What I could see of the towns looked tidy, but if there’s no rubbish collection or council tip, where’s one’s rubbish to go?
From a city called Rabat, there were more fences, more signs of modern life, and more women travelling, some even on their own. The station at Casablanca was relatively small, the train to Marrakech late and full to overflowing. It was Friday night and people seemed to be heading to their home towns for the weekend. I was getting tired from the travelling and reminded myself that I was on quite a nice train, in Morocco, in Africa. In Marrakech I got a taxi to the end of the little street my riad was up. As soon as I was out of the taxi a fellow wanted to show me the way. I said I knew where I was going and headed up the narrow street. I almost knew. After I went too far I backtracked to a derb (alley) where the signs weren’t well lit and found it was the one I was after. A door down and around the corner was numbered correctly so I hit the top buzzer and waited. It was my riad. According to Wikipedia, a riad is “a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard.” The housekeeper had the day off, so the owner got the one from across the road to check me in because he spoke English. It was a nice place and I was glad for a room to myself.
As I stepped outside the riad in the late morning, I got talking to a group from the riad around the corner. Three Americans and an Australian working and studying in Madrid over for a long weekend. They invited me to join them, which I happily did for the next two days. Our first stop was the gardens donated by Yves Sant Lauren to make the most of the sunny day. Cactus gardens, water features, palm trees, a bright blue building with yellow trim, generally cool and inviting. For lunch we went to a place that doubles as a restaurant and women’s training centre. The manager organised a vegetable tagine for me and made sure the gluten free one of us was looked after as well.
Afterwards we went back along the broad streets of the modern part of town to the narrower streets of donkeys and fruit stalls. Back up the market street near our riads and further into the souks, or markets, with winding unmapped alleys covered with woven grass and a sheet of plastic on top. Dust and noise, bicycles and scooters. People trying to sell bright leather slippers, bags, straight dresses, decorative metal light coverings, spices and breads. Cats eating out of rubbish skips.
The interior of the Museum of Marrakech was beautiful. Tiles similar to some of the ones in the Nasrid Palaces at the Alhambra, a small water feature in the centre of a large courtyard now covered with a large sailcloth structure filtering the sunlight. The unadorned walls above about knee height making me like this space much more than those in the Alhambra. We looped around a higgledy piggledy block once and a bit to find the old Ben Youssef School. More in the style of the Alhambra, but with accommodation for students around mini courtyards on both sides of the main courtyard. Their repetition and similarity adding to the maze like sensation.
Later we stopped in a riad with tearooms and crafts for sale. It was nice to sit out of the noise for a while. Walking from there through the big Jemaa El Fna square we ran the gauntlet of outdoor restaurants with men trying to convince to eat at their particular set of benches. One of the fellows in the group took some photos of men drumming with a crowd around them. One of the musicians thrust up his tambourine like drum to try to get payment from us. Unsure what to do we beat a hasty retreat towards the vegetarian restaurant the group and I had separately planned on going to.
On the way we spotted a henna café. One of the others wanted to get some henna on her hand, another joined in, and after a while I decided to as well. It was certainly more comfortable getting it in rooms rather than on the street. One of the owners was an American woman who was painting up the whole of the café using Moroccan styles as inspiration. She told us that the woman doing the henna was originally from the desert and had learnt to do the henna work with sticks, and now shows control of the syringe that’s to be envied. It’s just a thin metal tube from the syringe, not a needle! The design I chose turned out to be in the local style with flowers and leaves of Marrakech. We were happy with our temporary body art and our complimentary cloth bags to keep our hands from staining the riad’s sheets. Small things that make a big difference.
That was enough for one day. It was getting late by the time we were heading back to our riads. Stalls had closed up, the streets were quiet and darker. In a few quiet spots homeless women waited for sleep, several had a small child with them. On top of the smells from polluting scooters and cars, broken pavements and rubbish in the north of the country, these women helped me realise that being poor in a rich country is not the same as in a poor country. In Australia, even just the pollution controls, health and education services mean I could not be as poor as these women. Unless perhaps I was from a remote Aboriginal community.